The story of Ayurveda, the science of life, transcending time and teller, healing the teller and soothing the listener, is a story with no ending, but multiple beginnings, opening up into infinite possibilities.
The thread of this tale runs right through the very fabric and texture of Indian life. The spellbinding tale believed to be as old as cosmos, interweaves fact and fantasy, myth and matter, science and sagas. Dividing in to the vast sea of knowledge, let us try to separate the various stands of narrative in the history – seeking the mythological and the scientific, touching the abstract and the divine, studying the concrete and the material.
In India, knowledge is believed to be sacred, for all knowledge originates from the Gods. According to the Hindu mythologies, the rhapsody of the Universe is maintained by Trimurtis – ‘Bahma‘ the Creator, ‘Vishnu‘ the Preserver and ‘Siva’ the Destroyer. At the time of creation, Ayurveda dawned as a ray of enlightenment in the cosmic consciousness of ‘Brahma‘ the Eternal Creator.
‘Brahma’, the Self-Existent and the Creator Composed Ayurveda as a branch of Atharva Veda. A hundred thousand verses in a thousand chapters Divided by him into eight limbs or parts.
Ayurveda – A Panacea for Humanity
Brahma then imparted the knowledge to his disciple Daksha Prajapati, who passed it on the Aswins, the twin Gods, who in turn conferred it to Indra, the king of gods.
But while all this happened in the heavens, humanity was still plagued by pains and illness. Great seers continued to meditate upon a panacea or all maladies but in vain .It was decided that the great sage Dhanwantari reincarnated as Divodasa and the sages Bharadwaja and Kashyapa be deputed with the task of going to heaven and learning to the Divine Science of healing directly from Indra. Thus it was that Ayurveda traversed the skies and come down to the plains of mortal suffering.
The three illustrious sages, pioneer students of Ayurveda, had in turn eminent pupils. Divodasa Dhanwantari and his disciples specialized in Salyachikitsa (Surgery) and formed the school of surgery. His important students included Sushruta, Aupadhenava, Vaitarana, Aurabhadra, Pushkalavada, Nimi, Kara, karaveerya, Gopurarakshita, Bhoja, Kankayana, Galava and Gargava.
Punarvasu Artreya, who was the disciple of Bharadwaja had seven pupils –Agnivesa, Charaka, Bhela, Jatukarna, Parasara, Hareeta and Ksharapaani. They were called the Artreya School (General Medicine). The Kashyapa School specialized in Kumarabhurutya (Paediatrics). Foremost among Kashyapa’s students was Vruddha Jeevaka who wrote Kashyapa Samhita. His other disciples were Vasishta ,Atri, Bhrigu, Jeevaka, Parvataka and Bandhaka.
The history of native Indian medical science is probably as old as the Indus Valley Civilization dating back to 3000 BC. The meticulously planned cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro are pointers of not only India’s rich cultural heritage but also its advanced systems of hygiene and health care. The remains of deep antler and bitumen found in Harappa bear evidence to the existence of a medical science. It was between 1200 and 700 BC, subsequent to the Aryan invasion, that the four sacred Vedas were composed. References to diseases, herbs and herbal cures can be seen in all the four Vedas especially in the Rig Veda.
Atharva Veda has many hymns eulogizing herbs. Many plants were worshipped as deities and invoked by incantations. There were also many mantras to combat jaundice, consumption, heredity diseases and so on. The Atharvan hymns chanted for the cure of diseases were known as Bhaishajyams and those for attaining longevity and prosperity were called Ayushyams .These hymns, especially Ayushyams are considered as the foundation of later medical advancements.
Philosophy of Ayurveda
The emergence of different schools of Sanskrit philosophy like Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Vedanta and Mimamsa was another landmark in the history of Indian medicine. The principles expounded in these philosophies helped Ayurveda in developing its theory of humoral pathology. At the core of Ayurveda lies the theory that the human body is composed of three humors - Pitta, Vata and Kapha. The body which has these three humors in a state of equilibrium enjoys perfect health and their disequilibrium causes ill health.
Interestingly, though the theory apparently develop under the influence of the philosophies, what is quoted as the earliest reference to the theory appears in the Rig Veda:
Tridhatu Sarma vahanam Subhasathi
The Atharva Veda also has terms like Vatikrita which means a disease caused by the derangement of the humor Vata, and Vatagulman. However no further development of the idea can be seen anywhere in the Vedic scriptures.
The Birth of Science
More than a thousand years after the period of Atharva Veda came the age of the samhitas or compendiums. The term Ayurveda first appears in the samhitas, the earliest record works on Indian medicine .In Sanskrit, ayu means life and veda, science or wisdom.
It was during this age that marked the end of the oral tradition that medical treatment freed itself from the mantras and spells of the Vedic age. An unprecedented factual and materialistic approach to human health was adopted.
For the purpose of specialization of the science, it was divided into eight limbs –the Ashtanga. The ancient savants also incorporated into Ayurveda the theories of Nvava, Vaisheshika and Sankhya epistemology defining the origins of the material world science Ayurveda as a medical system also deals with gross matter. Hence, the concept of the Pancha Maha Bhutas (the Five Great Elements), a material concept interwoven with the theory of the thridoshas, forms the foundation of the science.
The age of compilation witnessed immense production of classical medical literature. Shushruta Samhita, Kashyapa Samhita, Agnivesa Samhita, Bhela Samhita, Jatukarna Samhita, Kharanada Samhita, Usana Samhita, Agastya Samhita and so on were the important works of the period.
The Agnivesa Samhita, later redacted by Charaka, and the Sushruta Samhita, revised by Nagarjuna considered to be masterpieces - are the only works that have survived. The others might have either been destroyed or become fragmented.
THE AGE OF COMPENDIA
The compendium by Charaka, the redacted Agnivesa Samhita, is the earliest literature on Indian medicine. The book is written in the form of the teachings of Artreya imparted to his pupil, Agnivesa. At the end of every chapter, there is a mention that the book has been written by Agnivesa and redacted by Charaka. Charaka, explaining why he chose to revise Agnivesa’s work, says, ‘’Agnivesa was the most sharp of intellect‘’.
There were other medical treatises by men like Bhela, Jatukarna, Parasara, Harita and Ksharapani also at the time but it is the Charaka Samhita that gives the best picture of the evolution of Indian medicine during this age.
When was the Charaka Samhita composed?
As to when it was composed, there are no definite answers. According to the Bower manuscripts, a collection of medical and divinatory texts from the late 4th or early 5th century AD, Charaka lived in the 5th century AD.
Other sources from China, though, say that Charaka was the court physician of King Kanishka whose period was around 100 AD. But this is doubtful, as the prose –style of the Samhita is very different from that of this period, noted for its long-winded metaphors and alliterations.
There are other evidences that may be considered more reliable which place him much earlier in time. Pathanjali who lived in the 2nd century BC is known to have written a commentary on the Charaka Samhita and therefore it follows that Charaka’s period should necessarily be earlier than that of his commentator.
The Charaka Samhita, as we now possess it, consists of 120 chapters in eight sthanas (parts ). Of these, the last two sthanas – 41 chapters altogether -were supplemented by Dridhabala who lived during the 3rd or 4th century AD.
8 main divisions
1. Sutra Sthana (30 chapters )
Deals with pharmacology , food , dietetics ,certain diseases, curing methods ,physicians and quacks , physiology , philosophy and other things of the most varied nature .
2. Nidana Sthana (8 chapters)
Deals with eight main diseases
3. Vimana Sthana( 8 chapters )
Deals with taste , nourishment ,general pathology and medical studies.
4. Sarira Sthana (8 chapters )
Deals with anatomy and embryology
5. Indriya Sthana (12 chapters)
Deals with diagonals and progonosis
6 chikitsa Sthana (30 chapters )
Deals with special therapy
7. Kalpaka Sthana (12 chapters )
Deals with special therapy
8. Siddhi Sthana( 12 chapters )
Deals with general therapy
The Second Masterpiece Sushruta Samhita
This book written by the physician Sushruta who was a pupil of the sage Dhanwantari, is a compilation of the teachings of the sage. The revised version by Nagarjuna, which is what is available to us now, also contains a supplement by him called Uttara Tantra.
Mainly a treatise on surgery and practical midwifery, this book has earned Sushruta the title, ‘Father of Surgery‘. He believed that when surgery is the only solution to treat an illness, it must be resorted to and will bring instant relief. He classified all surgical operations in to eight kinds and also enumerated 101 types of blunt instruments used for surgery.
The Age of the Sushruta Samhita
From the palaeographic evidence, Dr Hoernle , editor of the Bower Manuscript concludes that the book must have been revised between 400 and 500 AD. As such, it was written after the Charaka Samhita. The important commentaries on the work include Bhanumati by Chakrapani Datta and Nibandha Samgraha by Dalhana.
As with Charaka, opinions as to the period of Sushruta vary. The Mahabharata represents him as the son of Sage Viswamitra, which places him in an age prior to that of the epic. Sushruta is also mentioned in the Vartthikas of Katyayana (250 BC), the second most eminent grammarian after Panini.
6 main divisions
1. Sutra Sthana
Deals with the origin and eight divisions of medicine, training of physicians, theories related to therapeutic substances , dietetics , surgery and the treatment of wounds that is given primary importance.
One of the principle texts of Ayurveda is the Ashtanga Hrudaya (The essence of the eight limbs). This contains the kernel of Ayurvedic medicine and philosophy and stands next only to the other two monumental works, the Charaka and the Sushruta Samhita. As such it is the third book in the Brihat Trayl – The Great Trilogy.
The book was composed by Vagbhata.He was born in a Brahmin in Sind near Karachi, and embraced Buddhism in the later part of his life. He was taught Ayurvedic medicine by his father Simhagupta and a Buddist monk named Avalokita.
A Composition par Excellence
In its style of presentation, the Ashtanga hrudaya resembles the Charaka Samhita more than the Sushruta Samhita. Vagbhata also introduced some modification in the branch of surgery. There is an excellent commentary on the work called Sarvangasundari by Aruna Datta written in the 15th century.
High praise has been showered on the work by eminent historians. Dr P C Ray in his History of Hindu Chemistry says, ‘’The treatise of Vagbhata may be regarded the epitome of those of Charaka and Sushruta with some gleaning from the works of Bahela and Harita ‘’.
Dr Burnell, eminent historian, while analyzing the Bhaela Samhita says, ‘’The most superficial comparison shows how much Vagbhata was indebted to this ancient work’’.
To Which Age did Vagbhata Belong?
Now we have the familiar problem of placing Vagbhata securely in some age. The evidence from the Tanjore sources place him in the 8th century though some historians place his compositions around 600 AD. There are others who say. It is as early as the 2nd century. This belong to the information at hand, let us put an end to the disorder by safely concluding that Vagbhata lived sometime between 200 BC and 800 AD!
Who Wrote the Ashtanga Samhita ?
It has been ever a matter of debate among scholars whether the Ashtanga Samgraha, attributed to a Vagbhata – more oftern to Vruddha Vagbhata (The elder Vagbhata) - was written by the author of the Ashtanga Hrudaya or not. The argument by some scholars that it is an earlier composition by the same author and that the later work is merely a condensed version of the former gains strength by virtue of both having a lot in common and also dating to almost the same period.
Ayurveda received a lot of encouragement during the Buddist period, i.e, roughly between 500 BC and 600 AD. The Buddhist mendicants in their long journey all over the world to preach and propagate their religion took along with them the wonderful healing powers of Ayurveda. They spread Ayurveda to many countries including Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Nepal, Tibet, China, Mongolia, Japan and other South –East Asian countries.
Buddhism Gives a Boost to Ayurveda
According to Buddhist canonical works which are reliable sources for the evolution of Ayurveda, Salyachikitsa ( Surgery ) and Kayachikitsa ( General Medicine ) were the two main divisions of medicine at the time.
As Buddhism is founded on the principle of non – violence (Ahimsa Siddhanda), the monks were against surgery, associated with pain, and viewed it as an act of violence (himsa).
Nevertheless they propagated the methods of general medicine as a result of which this branch rose to prominence.
There was an unprecedented growth of Ayurvedic materia Medica and even metals and minerals began to be used as medicines leading to the formation of a new branch called Rasasastra (latro-chemistry).
It is interesting to note that Buddhist literature mentions only seven branches of the ‘octapartite‘ Ayurveda. Rasayana tantra was excluded. This was because according to the Buddhists, liberation from suffering – nirvana or salvation – could be attained only by withdrawal from a worldly life. As such, there was no reason for the follower of Buddhism to prolong his life span with Rasayana Chikitsa or treatments for rejuvenation.
Jeevaka - King of Physicians !
The two world – renowned universities of the Buddhist era were the Takshashila and Nalanda universities. Both had separate faculties of medicine. The most famous physician of the time was Jeevaka (6th century BC). Since he specialized in Kumara Bhrutya (Paediatrics), one of the eight branches of Ayurveda, he was known as Jeevaka Kumarabaccha. However, Jeevaka was equally at home in all branches of medicine including surgery.
Yatraushadhi : samagmata rajana : samitaviva
Vipra : sa uchyate bhishak raksho hameeva chatana
A good physician is one who lives in a place abounding in medicinal plants, and who assiduously devotes his time to the acquisition of knowledge. A medical career was not open to all in the olden times .Only a young man of a good family and who possessed intelligence ,courage and a good memory was eligible to study medicine .
It was customary for a physician to secure the permission of the king before starting practice. The ambition of every physician was to become court physician, whose duties including among others inspecting the food for the king, so as to protect him from being poisoned , and treat wounded soldiers during times of war.
Sushruta says a physician should keep his nails trimmed, cut his hair short, wear clean white clothes and shoes and carry an umbrella and a stick. According to Charaka, a physician should never long for another’s wife or property and abstain from intoxicants. He also says that the condition of the illness, however serious, should not be revealed to the patient.
Sushruta goes further to say that the physician should treat the patient as he would his own son. Any error in treatment causing death was severely punished by the king. A negligent surgeon would lose the limb with which he caused the patient to lose his life. A good physician also had to be a good cook since he had to ensure that his medicines were palatable.